Our Theological Wilderness

a position paper delivered at the Louisville meeting by Charles W. Keysor, Founder-Editor of Good News Magazine

During the process of preparing this paper, I have thought about the old sailor’s prayer: “Oh Lord, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small!” In approaching the awesome subject of theology and doctrine we should perhaps adapt this sailor’s prayer into a theologian’s prayer: “Oh Lord, Thy truth is so immense and my understanding is so small!”

I have come to a clear conviction about some things which need to be said concerning theology in the United Methodist Church. These points are not intended to exhaust the subject or to place any limitations on our continuing Task Force on Doctrine and Theology. I hope that my remarks may provide a kind of springboard-a point of departure into serious thought, self-examination, candid discussion, study of the Bible-and also some agonized wrestling with God Himself. Real theological reflection contains all of these elements-plus the sense of mystery and awe that should overwhelm us as we confront Eternity’s truth.

The first thing that needs to be said—especially to a group of United Methodists-is that theology, TRUE theology is GOD-ology. The word “theology” comes from the Greek word THEOS, meaning God. So if we stay with the root meaning of the word, theology can be defined as human efforts to understand who God is … how God operates … what God has commanded and promised. Theology is God-ology.

Does this sound too simple?

Perhaps. But the simple truth bears repeating. For many of us have allowed other “ologies” to crowd God-ology almost out of the picture. On page 79 of our current United Methodist Discipline you will find references to “black theology … female liberation theology … political and ethnic theologies … Third-world theologies … and theologies of human rights.”

These pretty much dominate the agendas and the budgets of United Methodism today, at least the upper levels. But can these legitimately be called theologies? Only if they are primarily concerned with the central realities of God. For example, the nature of God as black people understand it … God’s will as women may understand it … or how God is experienced by people of the Third World.

For God does not change or fluctuate—He is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” Constancy is one of the Divine attributes. God does not change—but variations do occur in our comprehension of Him. That means that we are the variable factor, not God. So theologies are really our variable efforts—conditioned, of course, by our own environment and our limitations—to perceive, to understand the constancy of God.

Sometimes one gets the impression that the so-called “special interest theologies ” may be less concerned about the eternal God than they are with their needs, their ideas and their problems. This puts God in second place and when God is assumed or subsumed then you have no theology at all. Instead, you have philosophy—the wisdom of people. You have a philosophy of human rights … a philosophy of the Third World … a philosophy of liberated women, blacks, Chicanos, etc.

This is not to say the church is wrong to be concerned about women’s rights, about the Third World, and about the plight of minority races. God is concerned about these things and we should be too. But we are wrong—dead wrong—to elevate any person-centered preoccupation to first place on the agenda of the church. To subordinate God is idolatry. To make God secondary is the most serious kind of error—but this is what happens when we lose sight of theos. Then our theology becomes not God-ology but man-ology, or woman-ology, or sociology, or scientology.

True theology is God-ology. We must never forget this.

My second point is that theology is important-supremely important! This needs to be said because so many United Methodists seem to consider theology supremely unimportant … marginal … trivial … petty. In fact, the United Methodist pastor or layperson who is seriously interested in theology today is something of a weirdo or a freak. This spirit of putting down theology can be seen at the very highest levels.

Delegates at the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, were asked to vote on the report of the 36-member doctrinal commission headed by Dr. Albert Outler. This report centered on the idea of “doctrinal pluralism,” a concept which many of us think is contrary to the Biblical faith of our Wesleyan, Protestant heritage. This incredibly important document came before the General Conference and was endorsed quickly by the overwhelming margin of 925 for and only 17 against. No significant questions were raised. No significant debate occurred.

If my memory is correct, the Atlanta General Conference spent about the same amount of time on theology that it did deciding whether the title of our denominational hymnal should be changed from “The Methodist Hymnal ” to “The UNITED Methodist Hymnal.”

Today the prevailing watchword is: What you DO really matters, not what you believe. Here we can see the triumph of American activism; the supremacy of pragmatism that judges all things by their practicality … their results. John Wesley carefully maintained the Biblical balance between faith and works. But modern Methodism has destroyed this balance, making works all-important and relegating faith and theology to oblivion. Do you doubt this? Then just recall how much emphasis was given to theology at the last annual conference you attended—at the last district meeting or quarterly conference.

How has theology sunk to such a point of low esteem?

What has changed the people called Methodist from keen theological sensitivity at the time of John Wesley and Francis Asbury? Why are we so different today … so INdifferent to the things of God?

It would be an unfair oversimplification to blame only the 1972 General Conference. In adopting doctrinal pluralism, the delegates at Atlanta simply made official what had long been a fact of Methodist church life: namely, that any kind of belief is permissible so long as apportionments are paid and the wheels of connectional organization keep on turning.

Consider the effect of doctrinal pluralism on a hypothetical church. X-ville United Methodist Church is not big or powerful enough to choose its preacher. So it takes potluck, whomever the bishop sends.

For five years Henry Evangel has been the preacher at X-ville. He preaches that the blood of Jesus makes believers clean from all sin. He tells his people that God does, in fact, answer prayer. He says that Jesus is God. He warns them that all will someday face judgment, and all will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Henry preaches from the Bible, which he expounds as God’s unique revelation of truth. Of course Henry Evangel tells everyone “You must be born again.”

Then Henry Evangel is moved to another church. The bishop appoints a new preacher to X-ville, Joe Zilch. The new man tells the people that the blood of Christ is “slaughterhouse religion” of the 19th century. He says the only value of prayer is the therapy you get from talking to yourself. He says that Jesus is a great man I Ike Shakespeare or Ghandi. He preaches and teaches that hell is a medieval superstition and that heaven is an optimistic illusion. The Bible? He tells people it is really a propaganda document that was invented by the first century church in order to “sell ” Christianity to the people of that time. The important revelation today, th is new preacher says, is found in the Watergate hearings, in the liberation movements of the Third World.

What are the people to think at X-ville United Methodist Church?

Both ministers graduated from United Methodist seminaries.

Both are members in good standing of the XYZ Annual Conference.

Both were appointed by the same bishop, yet their theology is different as night from day.

One perceptive layman said, “They don’t even have the same religion!” He is right. One is a believer in Biblical Christianity, the other in the religion known as liberalism. One is a Christian, the other is a humanist. But both are United Methodist preachers.

No wonder our people are confused!

No wonder they have concluded that theology is futile … pointless as a blind man looking for a black cat … in a dark room … at midnight … when the cat is not there.

I am saying that the United Methodist Church is paralyzed by the theological contradictions, ambiguities, which have multiplied over the last 150 years.

I am saying that a condition of total confusion – of theological anarchy – exists.

I am saying that doctrinal pluralism places the seal of official approval upon our prevailing theological anarchy … our doctrinal ambiguity. You might compare doctrinal pluralism with a man and woman who got pregnant and afterward they decided to legitimize their sin by a visit to the preacher and a marriage license on the bedroom wall.

Somehow, we need to recover in United Methodism the conviction that what a person believes really does matter. We ought to listen to Martin Luther—to whom John Wesley listened very carefully—to Martin Luther insisting that the things a person believes are the matrix—the mold—which shapes all that a person is or does.

I believe this is true. And so the challenge becomes: which theology will shape you? Will you be molded by Nashville’s Iiterature or by Jesus Christ? Will your beliefs be distorted by Rudolph Bultmann or shaped according to God’s will and plan by the Apostle Paul? Will your theology change with every new book? With every bizarre theological fad promoted by our seminaries? Or, will it be with you as the inspired Apostle said in Romans 12:2, Phillips paraphrase: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold. But let God remold your minds from within.” Theology has central importance. We had better believe this.

My third point begins as a kind of parable. So hear the Parable of the Coloring Book.

Once upon a time my five children were very small. In those days the kids loved to color with crayons (remember when your children did?). We gave our children boxes of crayons. And we gave them coloring books with large outline pictures of rabbits, houses, airplanes, etc. And the children took their crayons and colored the pictures red, orange, black, any color or crazy combination of colors that struck their fancy. We had bright green rabbits, we had purple houses, and we had pink airplanes. What strange, bizarre color combinations those children could dream up!

Hear now the interpretation of this parable.

The children represent the people of United Methodism, including laypeople, preachers, board secretaries and even seminary professors. The colors are their opinions, beliefs and prejudices. The coloring book represents theology.

Just as my little children freely and imaginatively colored their outline pictures … so do United Methodists freely and imaginatively color theology. To “do your own thing” is all that matters. There is no right and wrong, no correct or incorrect in this fantasy world of coloring-book theology.

The facts are plain to see: under doctrinal pluralism everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Doctrinal pluralism offers no clearcut boundaries between truth and error, no absolutes of unchanging truth. Instead, we have wispy, vague, shadowy hints and suggestions of essential truth—but they are general enough so as not to restrict or inhibit anybody from believing anything.

The church does not come right out and say: every person who wishes to be a Christian must necessarily believe these things; nothing more is necessary, nothing less is acceptable.

Our Articles of Religion have been the main doctrinal standard of Methodism since the time of Wesley. But now they have been circumvented by calling them “historic landmarks.” This means that in practice they are merely museum-piece curiosities which we can safely regard as the quaint relics of times past. A “historical landmark” is hardly what you would call something that is an essential standard in our own day!

In fact, our Articles of Religion have been neatly undercut. These basic doctrines of our church have actually been altered radically in defiance of the Restrictive Rule, which is supposed to protect Methodist doctrinal standards from alteration. When all is said and done, the essentials of faith are left wide open for anybody to color any way.

If you doubt this, just look around our church. Behold the mind-blowing diversity which runs the full range from fundamentalism to atheism (an atheist, by the way, demonstrates unbelief even more by ignoring God than by verbally denying God. For to ignore Him is to deny His reality).

Time does not permit me to go deeply into an analysis of doctrinal pluralism. You can read about it on pages 68 through 82 of our Discipline. I believe that one of the most important jobs before the Good News Task Force on Doctrine and Theology will be to carefully analyze doctrinal pluralism against the teachings of Holy Scripture and our Methodist theological tradition. If the discrepancy is as serious as many of us now believe, what does this mean?

Should we simply ignore it? Should we just maintain our private Biblical theology? Should we pretend that it really does not matter? Or is there something we can do?

Perhaps we should appeal to our district superintendents. The bishop. The annual conference.

Or is it time to appeal to United Methodism’s Supreme Court, the Judicial Council? Has the time come to establish that the Restrictive Rules have, indeed, been violated, and that doctrinal pluralism is therefore unconstitutional? If America can impeach its President on constitutional grounds, why cannot United Methodists impeach doctrinal pluralism if it does violate our Constitution?

I believe that our very first theological task must be SPELLING OUT CLEARLY AND DEFINITIVELY WHAT ARE THE MINIMUM ESSENTIALS AND THE OUTER LIMITS OF AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN FAITH—its positive content and also its negative boundaries.

It is by no means certain that all evangelicals are clear on what constitutes this core of faith-those principles of theology for which we are willing to die, if need be. Those articles of faith which we will never compromise, never surrender, and never forget.

The hymns and songs we sometimes sing hint that we evangelicals need to get our heads together concerning the real essentials of our faith. “He Touched Me ” is a great favorite. We all get a thrill singing it, for it testifies to the miracle of God’s healing, cleansing touch upon the sinner. Especially do we sing the chorus, over and over. But listen carefully to the chorus words. Do they not place more emphasis upon ME rather than HE? Upon the recipient of grace, rather than the Giver?

That is a danger, my friends—a very great and present danger. It is so easy to shift the focus of our attention away from Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Instead to emphasize MY experience …MY feelings … MY faith … MY needs … MY victory. The full Gospel is a delicate balance between the subjective I and the objective THOU. Our hymns, our worship, our prayers should all reflect this balance, rather than one part or the other.

These days we often see people raising their hands as a sign of praise and personal affirmation—especially while singing Gospel choruses. Sometimes I feel moved to lift one hand, or both of them. But the Spirit most often moves me to lift my hands in praise when I am singing “Love Divine, all loves excelling, Joy of Heaven to earth come down.” Or, my hand goes up in praise when I sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.” Sometimes I even feel moved to lift the arm of praise during the Apostles Creed, when I join with the Body of Christ in those words so rich with theological meaning and personal affirmation: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

Our theology stands revealed by what evokes our deepest praise and our thanksgiving.

I have just suggested that we evangelicals are not without some theological problems and needs. But I do want to suggest also that our conflict centers around basic, yes even constitutional theological issues. For this reason we cannot keep silent or simply make a gentleman’s agreement to agree to disagree in the name of pluralism.

We must be careful to realize that all United Methodists who use familiar words of faith do not necessarily mean the same thing we do. For example, those who are infected with the new, secular concept of church mission as social change and political liberation often use the word SALVATION. But they mean a this-world-only deliverance in social, economic, cultural and political terms. For them the grand old word SALVATION has no eternal, spiritual dimension as it does for us.

Other meaningful, time-honored theological words have been given new and secularized meanings. “Sacrament” has been transvalued to mean any human relationship. “God” may mean a secular power or an impersonal force. “Jesus” may not mean the Christ of God, but instead a human liberator-figure with machine gun cartridge bandolier slung around his neck.

Many trusting church people are misled when they hear the old, familiar theological words. But remember—the meaning may be something very, very different from what you think! As our brother Roy Putnam said in one of his Bible studies, “They use our vocabulary but they don’t use our dictionary.”

There has to be some cleansing of theological language until there is a more-or-less universal, accepted meaning attached to the key theological words; otherwise, we really can’t theologize—except among ourselves. The perversion of theological language makes impossible the great ideal of theological dialog, which the advocates of doctrinal plural ism consider so important.

Let us discover the essential core of Biblical faith. Let us articulate these precious truths. Let us witness to their reality as we share the faith, person to person. Let us proclaim core truth from our pulpits. Let us have church school literature which teaches core truth honestly and interestingly. Let us support missionaries who uphold our core truth around the world. Let us have, within United Methodism, the option of directing our money and our interest to programs which rest upon what we believe to be the essential core of faith.

And let us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, live according to our core truths! If we do, then God will honor our efforts. Then His truth will be multiplied to the glory of God, to the blessing of our church and the world.

My fourth point is that Scripture is the heart of true theology. When I get a backlash in my old fishing reel, I untangle and untangle the line. It is full of kinks, twists and knots. Finally I get down to the one knot which underlies everything. When I untangle this knot, then my fishing reel is OK.

I believe that the key to untangling theology is the Bible. The Holy Scriptures. The Word of God in written form, inseparable from the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Mistakes we have made in understanding what Scripture is and how Scripture should be used have “set us up,” so to speak, for all subsequent errors. This is so important! So absolutely central! If we go wrong here at the point of Scripture, then we are like the traveler who, at a critical moment in his journey took the right fork in the road instead of the left fork. From that point onward he was sure to end up in the wrong place. In somewhat the same way, when individual Christians or a church go wrong on Scripture, then nothing afterward can be correct.

An example is the distressingly common United Methodist misunderstanding of the Old Testament. Once I was a Methodist Church school superintendent. I began a program of Bible memorization for the children. The pastor was a recent seminary graduate and one day he asked me why I was having children memorize the Ten Commandments. He said, “We are Christians, the Ten Commandments are found in the Old Testament.”

Another example—I remember preaching about God choosing Israel, not because of Israel’s merit, but as an act of God’s sheer and sovereign grace. After the service the teacher of an adult church school class came up to me waving a Nashville quarterly. That very day she had taught in the lesson that God chose Israel because of Israel’s potential merit. This is a 180-degree reversal of the great Bible truth (New as well as Old Testament) that God loves us and redeems us, not because we deserve it or because we possess any inherent merit, but because of His kindness, His mercy, His amazing grace.

God expects His people to use the Bible in a very practical way. When we fail to do this, then we get into trouble … we get off the beam, as a church and as individuals.

Critics like to point out that the Bible does not contain specific, literal counsel on many issues such as air pollution, the impeachment of a president, etc.

That is true in many instances. But many of us believe that Scripture does contain PRINCIPLES upon which Christians can base their decisions in everyday matters. This is done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He helps us to understand the Bible principle and then apply it.

Take one example: pollution of the air. How do I find guidance from the Bible about this?

The Bible tells that when the earth was created, God had a plan. That plan was for people to act as God’s general managers-as stewards over all that God had made, the sky, the mountains, the seas, and creatures large and small. If we see ourselves as God’s appointed superintendents over the world, then we are going to be very much concerned about ecology. And why not? We are under God’s mandate to manage the earth. Our Heavenly Father has given us this task from the very beginning.

The person with this sense of Divine responsibility for the environment is most likely to make a real impact in the ecological problems of our day. This sense of divinely-ordained responsibility has its source in the Bible.

Next, something must be said about the nature of the Scriptures themselves. Do the words of the Bible contain the Word of God … or are they the Word of God? There is a huge difference. If the Bible only contains the Word of God, then everybody must select what is and what is not God’s message. This part of the Bible is the Word for Tom … That part is truth for Dick and still another part is truth for Mary. This has been our tragic legacy from neoorthodoxy, particularly from Karl Barth. Although he did place welcome emphasis on the Bible, Barthians, nevertheless, have promoted the idea of selective inspiration-that is, the Bible is only inspired when you think it is. Thus, Isaiah 53, that magnificent prophecy of our Lord Jesus Christ, is only true if you happen to think so. Otherwise, it has no valid message about Christ.

I remember going to the University of Chicago to hear the last American lecture of Karl Barth. The huge cathedral was full to overflowing. During the question period, somebody asked Dr. Barth if he believed there are errors in the Bible. When Barth answered, “Yes, there are errors in the Bible,” a great wave of applause swept through that cathedral. Some people were so happy they stood up and cheered! Many of us believe that Scripture contains no error.

Many of us believe that Scripture is Truth in pure and reliable form. And, if this Truth is at times clouded, then we place the blame on our faulty understanding—we do not say the Bible is full of mistakes.

Before the mystery of God’s Truth we bow in awe. We believe that the Bible prophesies Christ’s coming … tells accurately what He said and did … reports exactly how the early church began to follow Jesus and apply His teachings … and finally reveals to us the broad outline of God’s plan for the end of history. We understand, by faith, that the Old and New Testaments together are the whole, complete counsel of God-His personal and reliable message to each succeeding generation.

We shall never fully understand Scripture’s profoundest depths. To do that would be to comprehend the very fulness of God. But by His grace, by the illuminating action of His Holy Spirit, we grow in faith as we penetrate deeper into the mystery and majesty of His Word.

I am familiar with various critical theories about the Bible. I am, after all, the graduate of a United Methodist seminary—so I know about demythologizing … about J, E, D, and P. I know the Q theory and other critical theories. As far as I am concerned these are all the efforts of ingenious minds to make the Word of God captive to human reason … to rationalize away the mysterium … to remove the supernatural, rendering the Bible as simply the words of human authors unaided or uninspired by the Holy Spirit.

I believe that the Bible contains more wisdom than I shall ever understand … more truth than I am capable of absorbing … more beauty than I deserve, and more power than I can possibly appropriate.

Our theological quest, as United Methodist evangelicals, must begin and end with WHAT SAYS THE WORD OF GOD?

Others may ignore or downgrade the Bible if they wish-that is their privilege. But we shall continue to praise God for His Word—the incarnate Word of Jesus Christ and the printed Word of Scripture, which Jesus said will be fulfilled down to the very smallest detail. Even though heaven and earth pass away, God’s Word will endure.

Now for my last point. The June 1974 issue of United Methodists Today printed a very interesting article by a young minister named Barry Johnson. Barry belongs to my annual conference Northern Illinois. He has pioneered a new program of local church evangelism known as “Euriskon.”

Barry makes some good points in his article, but I need to comment about one not-so-good point. Barry wrote, “I believe God has a purpose for a healthy mainline church with a MODERATE theological stance.

Moderation in all things—pluralism, here we come!

The trouble with our prevailing theology is that it is SO moderate!

It is not the radical Gospel which turns the world upside down. Instead, the prevailing theology is too often a lukewarm, moderate compromise between Christian tradition and what we imagine people will accept. It strives to be inoffensive … innocuous … acceptable and undisturbing to all.

I was talking once with the pastor of a large and successful United Methodist Church. We were looking over his Sunday bulletin and I commented about the fact that there was no portion of the service devoted to confession of sin. He looked at me in horror. Then he explained that his church members would be offended at the idea that they were sinners, needing to repent.

This pastor had modified his corporate worship to keep the people happy. By so doing he assumed a “moderate theological stance.” One wonders how God regards a church full of people too proud to repent. One wonders how God will judge a pastor who shields his people from their own sinfulness and thereby deflects the radical grace of God.

“Moderate” is a word that can never be used to describe theos: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor can “moderate” properly be used to describe God-ology. Instead, “moderate” describes that acculturated blend of religious form and deadness of soul which has come to characterize our theological wilderness …. our wasteland of pluralistic compromise and ambiguity.

How about some radical theology for a change? Theology which is red hot or ice cold, but not lukewarm (the only temperature, incidentally, which Jesus condemned).

If we take our theology from God, through the Scriptures, then it is going to be radical—for radical means going to the root, and God is the root of all true theology.

One phase of our mission as United Methodist evangelicals may be helping our church and our people to escape the numbness of “moderate,” culture-conditioned theology.

Can you imagine Jesus with a “moderate theological stance?”

Can you imagine a “moderate” Martin Luther standing alone against the terrifying power of the institutional church … defying the whole corrupt hierarchy … saying, “Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other”?

May God deliver us from the “moderate theological stance” which makes so many preachers afraid to stand openly, boldly, forthrightly for what they know in their hearts is enduring truth.

I doubt that many people today want a “moderate theological stance.” Many youth have deserted so many churches because these hungry, searching youth are not interested in “moderate” churches whose main virtue is smooth -running committees and subservient clergymen.

People in the golden years find no ultimate spiritual answers in those churches whose theology has been so moderated that they have no clear word of assurance concerning the experiences of death and resurrection.

All these people are rejecting doctrinal pluralism, for it is the principle of moderation in all things applied to theology.

Moderation and pluralism …

How nice!

How dead!

How deadly!

Instead, by the grace of God, we shall find a theology of living fire … a theology of assurance that the final word will be spoken by our heavenly Father … a theology of confidence that one day the world’s babble shall cease and then “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Brothers and sisters, that is our kind of theology! ! !

Let’s discover its fulness.

Let’s proclaim it.

Let’s glory in it.

Let’s enjoy it.

And above all, let’s share it with others who have not yet come to the Father through Jesus the Son. And we’ll give God the glory—great things HE has done.


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